The History of Van Buren County County
In 1785, “Treaty of Hopewell”, the United States Government recognized the Cherokee Nation the rights to Middle Tennessee and Van Buren County. In 1806, the Cherokee Nation ceded the rights to the Middle Tennessee area and what is now Van Buren County. Cherokee Chief Black Fox received $100.00 a year for the duration of his life as compensation for the Cherokee Nation. Van Buren County was later established from parts of White, Warren and Bledsoe Counties. Van Buren was named for the eighth president of the United States, Martin Van Buren. Governor James K. Polk signed into law the Act to form Van Buren on January 24, 1840. The first organizational meeting for the county was held on April 6, 1840. Van Buren was divided into eight districts at that time.
The county seat, Spencer, was named for Thomas Sharp “Big Foot” Spencer. Spencer was one of the original “long hunters” and one of the first white settlers in Tennessee. Thomas Sharp Spencer was killed on April 1, 1794. He was killed en route from his home in Virginia by reportedly Indian Doublehead. What is now the City of Spencer (50 acres), was given to Van Buren County by Andrew K. Parker one of the original five Commissioned Justices.
During the creation of Van Buren County in January of 1840, it was so directed by the Tennessee General Assembly that the courts of the newly established county were to be held at the home of William Worthington in Van Buren County. Courts were to be held at the home of William Worthington until the people could vote a suitable location for the new Seat of Justice. During the election held on April 30, 1840 the voters of the new county voted in favor of the small village, Cummings Springs, due to its central location within the county, to be their County Seat. At the direction of the Tennessee General Assembly, the County Seat would be named Spencer.
Court was held at the home of Mr. Worthington from April 6, 1840 until September 7, 1840. On October 5, 1840 court was held for the first time at the new County Seat in Spencer. The Justices of the Court had purchased an old house for the temporary use of holding Court until a more suitable structure was built. The temporary Court House was located on lot 16 of the original plat for the Town of Spencer. Lot 16 is now the current location of the U.S. Post Office.
During the February, 1842 Term of the Van Buren County Court, Mr. William Hodges of the Third District was contracted by the Court to clear the proposed Courtyard of trees. The subject trees were to be cut in lengths of two and one half foot lengths for the fireplace at the temporary Courthouse. Mr. Hodges would be paid, fifty cents per cord of wood that was cut, and removed from the Courtyard.
The Court appropriated a Courthouse Tax to be used for the building of a new Courthouse. Twelve and one half cents from each Poll Tax, and five cents from each one hundred dollars of property value and a portion of the five-dollar pre year tax on Tippling Houses. At the October, 1843 Term of the Van Buren County Court, the initial and detailed plans for a new Courthouse to be built of wood were presented to the County Court. The plans were later modified at several different court meetings until the contract for a new Courthouse was awarded to Mr. Nathan F. Trogden, at the April, 1844 Term of Court. Then, at the July, 1845 Term of Court, the Court voted to allow Mr. Trogden the liberty to build the new Courthouse of brick in place of a wood framed building. At the July, 1848 Term of The Van Buren County Court, it was so reported, the new Courthouse was finished, completed and received.
The roof and the East exterior wall of the Courthouse received severe damage during a storm circa 1906. The walls were soon repaired and the roof was replaced. Our Courthouse has received several updates throughout its 168 years of service, as of July, 2016, such as the installation of rest rooms, new windows, all new electrical wiring, HVAC units and the remodeling of the Courtroom. Today our Circuit, Chancery, and General Sessions Courts are held in the Courtroom on a weekly interval. The Courthouse currently houses the offices of our Circuit, Chancery, and General Sessions Court Clerks and the office of the Administrator of Elections. Today, 168 years later, our same Courthouse that was completed in 1848, along with its large grassy courtyard and Veterans Memorial, is the beautiful centerpiece of our Spencer Town Square.
Area settlements were established as early as 1800 including what is known now as the Bone Cave Community. The discovery of Big Bone Cave lead to the finding of a giant Ground Sloth in 1811. This skeleton, now on display at the Academy of Sciences in Philadelphia, is the only known specimen of a giant ground sloth with a complete pelvis. In 1971 the bones of a Pleistocene Jaguar was discovered. Saltpeter was mined from the Big Bone Cave during the Civil War and War of 1812. As many as 300 miners worked the mine. Artifacts in the cave include wooden water pipes, railways, catwalks, ore carts, hoppers, vats and ladders. The Big Bone Cave is the sixth largest mapped cave in Tennessee.
In 1848, the formation of Burritt College was introduced to Spencer, Tennessee. The college was built to provide educational opportunities for the local children. Poor roads and isolation was a primary concern of the community. The college was opened on February 26, 1849. Isaac Newton Jones was the first president with $1,500.00 dollars assets, 73 students, and 3 teachers. The second year William Davis Carnes was elected President of the College and later made Burritt College the first coeducational college in Tennessee and in the South. The course work included Latin, Greek, Philosophy, Mathematics and Christianity. Girls and boys were accepted on an equal basis.
Burritt College was named for Elihu Burritt of Worcester, Massachusetts. Burritt was a prominent member of the “peace movement”. The Spencer/Van Buren location isolated students from the corruption of city life. Many students graduated from Burritt College later moved to the city rather than living the rural life. In 1861, after the Spring Session, Burritt College closed due to so many of its male students volunteering for the Confederate Army. Federal troops occupied the college facilities during the Civil War and partially destroyed the campus. Burritt College reopened in 1867.
William Newton Billingsley, an educator from White County, was brought to Burritt College in 1890 to lead the college. This began the prosperous times of the college. Burritt College closed its doors in 1938 due to the tough economic times (great depression), state requirements for schools and finally the establishment of a county high school. There are local citizens today (2016) that attended Burritt College in Van Buren County in the 1930’s. The school was unique and served a great purpose for the children of our county.
The history of Van Buren County is immersed in the Volunteer Spirit! It is believed that as many as eleven veterans of the Revolutionary War later settled in what is now Van Buren County. The men and women of Van Buren County have proudly volunteered for every war in the history of our country. During the Civil War two hundred sixty-eight men volunteered for the Confederate Army and ten men volunteered for the Union Army. It is with great appreciation and gratitude we have proudly welcomed our veterans home. Their bravery and sacrifice will never be forgotten.
The Natural Resources of lumber, coal and rich fertile farming soil is some of our greatest commercial assets. Timber reclamation in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s introduced a railway to the Rock River Community. Coal mining and later strip mining (coal) was prominent during the 1970’s and 1980’s. Farming was the primary way of life during the early years of our county. Family farming and timber reclamation continue to be a large part of our economic structure. The natural beauty of our mountains, old growth forest, rivers, streams and majestic waterfalls gave birth to historic Camp Clements and Fall Creek Falls State Park.
The family farm and agriculture need was a necessity in our rural community. Mr. D. M. Clements, the first Vocational Agriculture Teacher and State Department leader, had a vision of developing a camp for agriculture students and future agriculture leaders in Tennessee. In 1927, Mr. Norman Ward deeded twenty-five acres of land on the Caney Fork River for the purpose of developing this camp. The camp was born! Five hundred forty-three student members attended the camp the first year. In 1934, the State Association of Future Farmers of America honored the State Supervisor of Agriculture by naming the newly built camp in Van Buren County “Camp Clements”. Today Camp Clements is fifty-eight acres of beautiful river front land that provides magnificent facilities for all the Career and Technical Student Organizations in Tennessee. It is also open to groups for events.
Fall Creek Falls, the highest falls (256 feet) in North America East of the Rockies, was first proposed in 1935 by the National Park Service. It contained 15,777 acres was purchased for less than seven dollars an acre. In 1944 the land was quick deeded to the State of Tennessee. It was for the exclusive purpose of a public park, recreational and conservational purpose. James M. “Judge” “Perckerwood” Taft was instrumental in the development of Fall Creek Falls State Park. Judge Taft found the WPA (Work Progress Administration) labor was available. He went to the governor with the idea to build the park and Fall Creek Falls State Park was born.
The park is primarily located on the Eastern side of Van Buren County. Many properties were purchased and families were relocated to create Tennessee’s largest and most visited state park. There was once a gristmill and a sash sawmill around the year 1800 located on what is now known as the Cascades Water Falls. The mill was washed away during flooding. Gilbert Gaul (1855-1919) was one of America’s greatest artist and illustrators. Gaul’s property had a cabin and studio on land near Fall Creek Falls. Today you can find prints of Gaul’s paintings of the Civil War located at the Village Center at Fall Creek Falls.
The Gorge or “Gulf” as is known locally, has breath-taking views that were once painted by Gilbert Gaul. The gulf is around six hundred feet deep and over one mile wide. Cane Creek, the headwater of Fall Creek Falls, had eroded this land forming this beautiful view. The plant and animal life is similar to the Great Smoky Mountains. Deer can be seen every day while driving through the park. A wide variety of animal life is ever present and abundant. This beautiful State Park is open year around.
Van Buren County has a four-lane connector road from I-40 in Cookeville to I-24/I-75 in Chattanooga. With beautiful mountain trout fishing streams, Fall Creek Falls State Park, an eighteen-hole golf course and beautiful mountain roads winding through old growth forest, Van Buren County is immersed in tranquility as our forefathers found it. You will find a friendly climate with adequate rainfall that is very attractive to retirees. With 275 square miles of mountain range, valleys and winding gorges, Van Buren County is in the heart of Tennessee. As our history reflects, we are family orientated, hardworking and proud Volunteers. History will show that we will persevere!